Numerous factors causing increased costs are having an impact on attendance at faith-based events. Some planners tell us they are seeing 60% of their pre-pandemic attendance despite the enthusiasm from attendees to return face-to-face.
“We had our 2022 ACL Conference experience in June 2022 and most people wanted to be back in person, but budget restrictions and travel expenses—expensive airline fees and gas prices—prevented many from coming,” says April McKinion, conference manager and outreach coordinator for the Association of Christian Librarians. Consequently, in-person attendance was 50% of what it was pre-COVID for the annual event.
John Walters, convention producer and CBH director for Church of God Ministries, shares a similar story about a youth event in San Antonio. His event usually rotates cities every two years (Orlando is booked in 2024), and in 2020, the event was canceled. The event was held in the same location in San Antonio as a prior event and came in at about 60% of pre-pandemic attendance. “However, the energy level and enthusiasm were very high,” says Walters. “People are ready to be back out and about.”
Most of Church of God Ministries’ financial issues had to do with hotel contracts executed prior to the pandemic and rebates tied to the cost of the convention center. Because attendance was slightly above 60% of their prior visit to San Antonio, this placed some significant budgetary stresses, especially with hotels.
“Production expenses were up in general,” adds Walters.
Walters didn’t raise attendee rates, but cut back on F&B to help compensate. With contracts negotiated pre-COVID, attendance was not back to full strength. “Convention center costs were based upon hotel nights sold and the attrition issue hit us on hotel properties,” says Walters. “We used four hotels. Some worked with us, and some did not.”
Likewise, Jan Ervin, who plans events for the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, says, “The venues are not harder to secure because a lot of groups have ceased meeting in person. However, the costs going up considerably is a great deterrent.”
Ervin is seeing the biggest difference in cost in the food portion of the billing. “The service portion of the food is now up to 26% of the food costs. That is a big increase for nonprofits.” Because Ervin’s group does not typically charge guests to attend its events, the increased costs were absorbed by the Texas Annual Conference.
Full Steam Ahead
While some of these conferences are struggling, other faith-based event planners are experiencing record turnout. “Chi Alpha events are back in full force,” says Gary Paschal, conference and event specialist for Chi Alpha Campus Ministries.
“We just finished our National Chi Alpha staff conference in Phoenix July 25 through 29. Our attendance was a record high.” The faith-based group overperformed with its room nights and maxed out its meeting space at the Arizona Grand Resort for this family event. “We had 500 children in our missionary kids program and 1,500 staff,” says Paschal.
Chi Alpha didn’t see the same F&B cost increases. “Since we had contracted early on, we bypassed recent food cost increases,” adds Paschal. “The property did a great job with plenty of great meals.”
Chi Alpha is seeing growth in all their local, state and area events, Paschal says.
Dr. Kim McNair, an independent faith-based planner, held an event in May 2022 at the Georgia Aquarium. “We had to add three more tables in the end,” she says. The event was a faith-based fundraiser called Dining for Difference for Families First Foundation. They hadn’t held the event in two years because of COVID-19. “It was an amazing event. To come back and have that reception, everyone was ready to get out.”
While we love these success stories, you have to wonder whether the convenience of virtual events and how cost-effective they’ve become is still holding some attendees back from returning in-person.
Ervin says that for the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church’s annual conference, attendance was about 700 to 1,000 fewer people in total for the three days. “We saw more ‘guests’ that just came for certain things, watched from livestream and not attended in person,” says Ervin. “A lot of our older constituents stayed away.”
“There is nothing like an in-person event, though,” chimes in Latricia C. Davis, CEO of Power to Emerge. “However, we still have a population of people who have embraced virtual events as the new normal and would rather stay in the comfort of their home and attend, which is more affordable.” Davis advises faith planners to be more flexible and willing to offer a hybrid model that accommodates both types of attendees.
Davis echoes sentiments of rising costs as a deterrent. “The rates are extremely high for everything, which ultimately drives the cost of rates for guest rooms, food and beverage packages, and meeting room rates.”
She cautions that planners everywhere are challenged with offering the best experience for guests at an affordable rate. That problem doesn’t seem like a new one for faith-based conferences and events. But, she adds, “We’re often being forced to select dates off-peak or selecting alternative dates for the event. The faith market is competing with larger conferences, which are booking up large blocks of rooms, which limits the meeting space available for smaller events.”